La Liga Football News: Predictions

Andy Greeves looks ahead to the new 2008-2009 La Liga season

1 - Barcelona

Pep Guardiola, one of the Nou Camp's favourite sons, returned to the club over the summer to take the Barcelona hot seat. That despite his lack of managerial experience.

Having endured the humiliation of finishing a massive 18 points behind old rivals Real Madrid last season, Barca will be looking to bounce back by capturing the La Liga title this time around.

The club has significantly bolstered their squad over the summer, signing Sevilla pair Seydou Keita and Daniel Alves, as well as Gerard Pique from Manchester United, Martin Caceres from Villarreal, Jose Manuel Pinto (Celta de Vigo), Alexsandr Hleb (Arsenal) and Henrique (Palmeiras).

The hurt of last season should spur Barcelona to towards their 19 La Liga title in 2008-2009, with a much improved side to select from in 2008-2009.

2 - Real Madrid

It's been a surprisingly quiet summer for the La Liga champions, who have welcomed just three signings to their squad this season.

Ruben de la Red, a product of the Madrid youth academy, returns to the Bernabeu after a starring season with Getafe in 2007-2008. Euro 2008 star Rafeal van der Vaart joins Dutch compatriots Arjen Robben, Royston Drenthe, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Wesley Sneijder in Madrid. Javi Garcia and Ezequiel complete the list of new signings, though the latter has been loaned straight back to former club Racing Santander.

It goes without saying that Bernd Schuster's men will be desperate to win their third consecutive La Liga title this season. But the emphasis at Real Madrid going into the new campaign seems to be set on winning an elusive tenth Champions League trophy.

Real's focus on Europe could bring about a change in the pecking order in Spain, with arch-rivals Barcelona capable of capitalising on any Madrid league slip ups.

3 - Villarreal

Following Villarreal's remarkable second place finish last season, hopes are high at El Madrigal that the team might have enough quality to challenge for their first ever La Liga title.

Marcos Senna, one of the stars of Euro 2008, has delighted fans by signing a one year extension to his contract. A massive deal considering the number of clubs across Europe that expressed an interest in him this summer.

Villarreal's experienced individuals such as Robert Pires, Pascal Cygan and Nihat Kahveci have been joined by two-time La Liga winner Edmilson and Argentina midfielder Ariel Ibagaza. Young talent has also been sought, with 18-year-old American Jozy Altidore arriving for a US record transfer fee of $10m. Other additions include Joseba Llorente, Robert Flores, Damian Escudero and Sebastian Eguren.

It will be interesting to see how the Yellow Submarines cope with the demands of a title push and playing Champions League football. Given their recent achievements, anything seems possible with Villarreal.

4 - Sevilla

After a traumatic season, which saw the death of Antonio Puerta and departure of manager Juande Ramos to Spurs, Sevilla gained widespread praise for their fifth placed finish.

Manolo Jimenez demonstrated that the step up from B-team coach to first team manager was one he could take in his stride. Now his, and Seville's aim is to establish the club as a top four side.

It won't be easy given the amount of high profile departures this summer, including Daniel Alves and Seydou Keita who moved to Barcelona. New arrivals Fernando Navarro, Aldo Duscher, Romaric, Adboulay Konko and Lautaro Acosta should go a long way to soften the blow of their departures though.

Importantly, Seville have held on to star winger Diego Capel this summer, strongly linked with moves to Tottenham and Barcelona. They have also maintained one of the best front lines in Europe in Frederic Kanoute and Luis Fabiano, who netted 60 goals between them last season.

Those two can fire their club back into the top four this season.

5 - Atletico Madrid

After a decade of heartache and disappointment, Atletico Madrid are finally back where they belong - amongst Spanish football's elite.

Los Rojiblancos gained a spot in the qualifying round of the Champions League by finishing fourth in La Liga last season and this week guaranteed their place in the group stages with a 4-1 aggregate victory over the German side Schalke.

Javier Aguirre has added highly rated Dutch defender John Heitanga to Atletico's squad over the summer and also recruited legendary French keeper Gregory Coupet, Czech Republic captain Tomas Ujfalusi, Portuguese midfielder Paulo Assuncao and ex-Liverpool forward Florent Sinama-Pongolle.

There's a few more pieces still needing to be added to the Atletico jigsaw if the team are to seriously challenge the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid for the title in the next few years. However, a decent run in Europe and a fight with Sevilla and Villarreal for the La Liga third place should be realistic goals for now.

6 - Valencia

Few clubs in Europe underachieved as badly as Valencia in 2007-2008.

Despite boasting a line-up including seasoned internationals such as David Villa, Fernando Morientes, Joaquin Sanchez and David Silva, the club slumped to a tenth place finish. At one stage, Valencia were as low as 15th in the league, just two points above the relegation zone.

In their last season at the Mestalla, Los Che will be looking for a greatly improved campaign. While they haven't significantly added to their squad, keeping hold of the likes of Villa and Silva is a massive achievement for a club with obvious problems at boardroom level.

Unai Emery's achievements with un-fancied Almeria over the last few seasons demonstrated the manager's ability to get the best out of an average squad. With the rich talent available at Valencia, Emery should be able to get Los Che back on track this campaign, with a top six finish achievable.

They could also do well in the UEFA Cup, having qualified for the competition by winning the 2008 Copa Del Rey.

7 - Deportivo La Coruna

After three seasons in the European wilderness, the 2004 Champions League semi-finalists Deportivo compete in the UEFA Cup this campaign. So could this be a return to prominence for one of Spain's largest clubs?

Brazilian left back Filipe has been signed permanently, following two impressive seasons on loan at the Riazor, while highly rated Portuguese defender Ze Castro has also been brought in from Atletico Madrid.

There will be a lot of pressure on new front man Omar Bravo to prove his worth in a major league. The 28-year-old was a prolific scorer in his native Mexico, netting 101 times in 258 appearances and has scored 13 goals in 48 games for Mexico.

Spaniard Mista will be another new striker looking to impress, though both front men will find it near impossible to repeat Dani Guiza achievements of last season. He got 27 league goals, winning the Pichichi Award (League top scorer) but has moved on to Fenerbahce for 14m euros. The sale of Fabricio Coloccini to Newcastle is another major loss.

A place in the top six is beyond Deportivo this season, but an improvement on last season's ninth position finish is possible.

8 - Mallorca

Having sold a 93% share in the club to British entrepreneur Paul "The Plumber" Davidson, Mallorca have been extremely busy in this summer's transfer market.

Alhassane Keita, Josemi, Mario Suarez, Ayoze, Corrales, Marti, Juanmi Calljon and Aduriz have all been brought to the club on a permanent basis, while Juardo and David Navarro spend a season at the ONO Estadi on loan.

Jonas Gutierrez's switch to Newcastle United and Fernando Navarro's sale to Sevilla are major losses for Mallorca. But there squad has not necessarily been weakened following some shrewd summer buys and for that reason Gregorio Manzano's men are more than capable of following up last season's top eight finish.

9 - Espanyol

The 2007 UEFA Cup finalists lost manager Ernesto Valverde this summer to Olympiacos of Greece.

Valverde's replacement is former legendary Espanyol player Tintin Marquez, who has been the club's number two since 2004. In the season the club moves to a new stadium (half way through the campaign), the new boss will feel confident of guide his side to a top half finish.

Star players Daniel Jarque and Carlos Kameni have fuel Los Periquitos optimism, opting to stay at the club despite strong reported interest from Tottenham Hotspur. Espanyol's squad has also been boosted by the signings of Sergio Sanchez, Callejon, Beranger, Cristian Alvarez, Eduardo Costa and Roman Martinez.

10 - Getafe

Despite a lower half finish last season, Getafe gained widespread praise for their European exploits, defeating the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Benfica in the UEFA Cup. With no European distraction this campaign, Getafe should be capable of winning admirers for what they do in the league, with a top ten finish a distinct possibility.

Roberto Soldado is an excellent addition to Getafe's squad, having proven his ability during a loan spell with Osasuna. The 23-year-old is joined at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez by his former Real Madrid team mate Esteban Granero, who impressed on loan with Getafe last season. Ruben de la Red has moved in the opposite direction, returning to the Bernabeu after an impressive campaign with Getafe.

All in all, Los Azulones have a better squad than last season and Victor Munoz's team are a good outside bet for the Copa del Rey this campaign.

11 - Racing Santander

Along with Almeria, Santander were the biggest surprise package of 2007-2008, finishing sixth in La Liga and qualifying for the UEFA Cup.

The Cantabria side were dealt with a shock of their own during the summer when coach Marcelino opted to leave Los Verdiblancos in favour of relegated Real Zaragoza. Tough-tackling midfielder Duscher was snapped up by Sevilla for a mere 3 million euros, while Danny Szetela, Sergio Sanchez, Jordi Lopez and Ayoze Diaz were all significant departures during the close season.

Santander sold star defender Ezequiel Garay to Real Madrid, but have at least managed to maintain him on a season-long loan.

Having failed to make significant additions to replace their departing stars, Racing will find it difficult to follow up their sixth place finish last season and more mediocre surroundings await

12 - Real Betis

Real Betis.

Betis have been one of Spain's greatest underachievers in recent seasons, and once again failed to live up to expectations in 2007-2008. Their disappointing mid-table finish was a far cry from Dos Verdiblancos' fourth placed spot in 2005 and various European exploits of old.

But it's not all doom and gloom for Betis, especially on the transfer front this summer. Mehmet Aurelio impressed for Turkey at Euro 2008 and is a great addition to Paco Chaparro's squad. As is the pacy Portuguese right-back Nelson and Cameroonian Achille Emana.

Striker Nery Castillo will be looking to bounce back from disappointing spells with Shakhtar Donetsk and Manchester City by becoming a real crowd favourite, as he was with Greek club Olympiacos.

With continued uncertainty over Betis' financial position and disappointing on-field showings over the last few years, fans at the Estadio Manuel Ruiz de Lopera have endured a rough ride of late. Hopefully 2008-2009 will offer them some light relief.

13 - Athletic Bilbao

In their 78th consecutive season in La Liga, Bilbao fans can expect much of the same they have seen from their club over the last few seasons. Combative rather than exhilarating performances and a mid-table finishes the norm at the San Memes.

In Javi Martinez and Markel Susaeta, the club boasts two of the finest young talents in La Liga. But their reliance on older individuals, such as Fran Yeste and Joseba Etxeberria, to perform consistently emphasizes the overall frailty of Bilbao's squad.

They have failed to significantly bolster their complement of players this summer, but in Joaquin Caparros, they have a manager capable of getting the best out of limited resources.

So, surprise surprise, a mid table finish awaits again.

14 - Almeria

In their first season in La Liga in 2007-2008, Almeria proved to be a massive surprise package finishing 8th. Along the way the club notched a 4-1 win at Sevilla and also triumphed 3-0 at Deportivo La Coruna. Even more impressively, they beat Real Madrid 2-0 at home and tied with Barcelona at their Estadio del Mediterraneo ground.

Key to Almeria's success was striker Alvaro Sanchez, who scored 13 goals. Holding on to the 22-year old front man this summer is a major achievement for the Andalusia based club. Unfortunately last season's success has come at a certain cost to Almeria, with manager Unai Emery moving to Valencia. He's been replaced by ex-Numancia boss Gonzalo Arconada.

Emery's departure hasn't fazed the club, who have signed a number of promising youngsters over the summer. Pablo Piatti, a gifted Argentina under-20 player, has joined despite interest from larger European clubs such as Manchester United and Juventus. Full back Michel, signed from Flamengo, is another youngster with fantastic ability.

Felipe Melo will be sorely missed by Almeria, having been at the heart of most of their sides attacking moves last season. But Arconada's side can follow up their excellent La Liga debut with a respectable mid-table finish this term.

15 - Osasuna

Los Rojillos have gone from the Champions League preliminary stages, to mid-table, to relegation threatened side all in the space of three seasons.

This campaign, Osasuna will just be hoping to achieve some consistency, having failed to win two games on the bounce at any time of the season and finishing perilously close to the relegation places.

The club has made a number of significant signings to ensure another catastrophic season is avoided. Santiago Ezquerro has joined from Barcelona, along with Iranian international Masoud Shojaei.

Complementing an already existing spine of gifted players such as defender Cesar Azpilicueta and forwards Kike Sola and Dady, Osasuna should improve on their form of 2007-2008.

16 - Valladolid

Los Pucela achieved a respectable 15th place finish in their first season back in La Liga, after a three year top flight absence. It should be a case of much of the same for Jose Luis Mendilibar's side this campaign, with enough to stave off trouble again in 2008-2009.

Valladolid held Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona to 1-1 draws at home last season, but were on the end of some heavy defeats away, including a 7-0 thrashing at the Bernabeu. Greater consistency on the road, as well as the ability to turn their large number of draws into win this season is the key for Los Pucela.

With their striker Llorente, who netted 15 times last season, leaving for Villarreal in May, Valladolid could struggle for goals this campaign. 23-year-old Swedish youngster Henok Goitom has been loaned from Real Murcia, with only two La Liga goals to his name to date. Veteran front man Victor will again be tasked with scoring goals to secure their safety this season.

17 - Sporting Gijon

As Almeria proved last season and Recreativo Huelva did the year before, you should never write off a newly promoted side in La Liga.

The 2007-2008 Segunda Division's third placed team have spent wisely on a tight budget this summer. Midfielders Diego Camacho and Carmelo are proven La Liga performers, both arriving from Levante. Jurgen Colin also has a wealth of experience from his time in Holland, Belgium and England.

The biggest loss to Gijon is goalkeeper Roberto, who conceded less than a goal a game last season. New boy Ivan Cuellar will find his gloves hard to fill.

Overall, the club has spent well and their shrewd summer purchases should just about ensure Gijon's survival this season.

18 - Malaga

Last season's Segunda Division runners-up Malaga have experienced a traumatic close season, losing coach Juan Ramon Muniz and star striker Antonio Hidalgo.

While new manager Antonio Tapia has brought no less than nine new players to La Rosaleda, Los Boqureones start the campaign as one of La Liga's relegation favourites. Quantity, rather than quality seems to have been Malaga's summer transfer philosophy.

Having conceded the most amount of goals of any team in the top five of the Segunda Division, there will be great pressure on new boys Weligton Robson and Ivan Cuadrado to shore things up at the back. Much will be also expected of Moroccan striker Nabil Baha too, having scored 10 goals in 29 games in his first season with the club.

With Malaga likely to struggle to score this season and also looking a soft touch at the back, their La Liga days are unlikely to extend beyond May 2009.

19 - Numancia

With matches against Barcelona, Real Madrid and Villarreal to open Numancia's season, the newly-promoted side will be under no allusions of the task they face in La Liga.

Los Rojilos lost their second division championship winning manager Gonzalo Arkonda over the summer, who opted to join Almeria. Star players Gregory Beranger and Jacobo Sanz have moved La Liga rivals Espanyol and Valladolid, while strikers Julio Alvarez and Carmelo have also departed.

New Croatian boss Sergio Kresic has attempted to fill the gaps left by those players with the signings of Alberto Montejo, Juan Pablo and Cisma (on loan).

It's all likely to be in vain though, with the upheaval of the summer months bound to take its toll on Numancia, who look certain relegation material.

20 - Recreativo Huelva

Having finished eighth in their first season back in La Liga in 2006-2007, Recreativo got a taste of that famous football condition, 'second season syndrome' last campaign.

It took a final day 3-2 victory over Real Zaragoza for Recreativo to secure their league status, finishing 16th in La Liga.

Francisco Mendoza's squad has been crippled by departures this summer, suggesting a long, hard season awaits. Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Martin Caceres and Carlos Martins are amongst those that have moved on, with their replacements significantly less experienced.

Sisi, Nasief Morris, Andres Lamas and Sebastian Nayar are all relative unknowns.

It's going to prove to be third season unlucky for Huelva, who are already the bookmakers' favourites for the drop.

Andy Greeves



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